manage

Remedy for Hyperfocus

Try a Refreshing Palette Cleanser

Ever get engrossed in a perfectly innocent activity—such as looking up whether or not all sloths are three-toed—and then two hours later realize that reading endless reviews of toenail clippers is keeping you from getting started on that presentation that’s due tomorrow?

The term hyperfocus refers to being riveted in an activity; so riveted that prying yourself away becomes a real challenge. When hyperfocusing on shopping for toenail clippers, for instance, you might think to yourself, I should stop this and work on my presentation for tomorrow. You know you’re hyperfocusing when you have that thought and yet continue clicking on all the color variations of this toenail clipper: light blue, hot pink, rainbow (different hues for different toes!). A few minutes later (5, perhaps, or 45…) you have the same thought again. And again. And again.… One of my clients described the state of hyperfocus as analogous to being paralyzed.

Hyperfocusing is the body’s way of saying I’m busy! I’m not listening! Have you had the experience of mentally poking, nagging, even yelling at yourself to stop what you’re doing so you can start the next activity, all the while completely ignoring yourself?

Part of the problem is that researching toenail clippers is an easy way to avoid working on that presentation; in other words, hyperfocusing is a super-effective avoidance tactic. Even if there’s no presentation to work on, making the next click on the current web page is an effortless way to avoid doing virtually anything else, including the very process of deciding what to do next, which might involve those “executive function” thingies.

So let’s make interrupting hyperfocus the easiest, lowest-commitment thing to do, something that you have no motive to avoid. As soon as you become aware that you might be hyperfocusing, take a palette cleanser moment.

I was introduced to the concept of palette cleansers on my thirtieth birthday. I was given the gift of a gourmet dinner at a restaurant called the DePuy Canal House in High Falls, NY. It was, like, nine courses, including—I kid you not—both rabbit- and venison-based appetizers. Between the rabbit and deer, my wife and I were each brought a tiny dish of sorbet. I asked if this were some abstruse European custom of inserting a proto-dessert before the main course (after all, Europeans eat salad after the entrée—and the Canal House had adopted this un-American sequence). I was informed that the sorbet1 was a “palette cleanser”: it would, in effect, rinse off my taste buds, so that the flavor—pardon me: flavour—of rabbit would be completely gone from my mouth, and the venison would be a full, untainted gustatory experience unto itself.

This is either genius or unsupportably bourgeois, but in any case we can make good use of it as a way out of hyperfocus. We can put a tiny, flavor-neutralizing activity in between a hyperfocused activity and the next activity we might be avoiding. Here’s how.

Palette Cleanser Technique

  1. When you feel like poking yourself to stop hyperfocusing, perform a benign physical action that involves the use of at least three limbs—for example:
    • standing and patting your head (two legs + one arm)
    • hopping while touching your chest and back at the same time (one leg + two arms)
    • a split with jazz hands (all four limbs)
  2. Choose what you want to do next (and what you were just hyperfocusing on must be a valid option!)

Notes

Make the palette cleanser activity both easy to do and completely non-functional; i.e. it should require no special effort, and shouldn’t be useful for accomplishing anything. Thus, doing ten push-ups is great exercise, but a risky palette cleanser. Marching in place while touching your nose (left-right, left-right, halt!) is more like it. Going to your mailbox to retrieve the mail is too useful; instead, just walk to the other side of the room and knock the wall with your pinky-knuckle. All a good palette cleanser requires is that you unseat yourself and move your limbs.

Your choice of what to do next must be unconditional. You must be able to choose anything feasible. Flying to Saturn is out of the question, but doing laundry, writing a report, eating ice cream, making dinner, ordering pizza, and going right back to what you were just doing all have to be chooseable. If you rule out any option, then whatever part of you would vote (consciously or unconsciously) for that forbidden path will work to avoid the palette cleanser activity in the first place. The palette cleanser can have no fetters. To be a neutral activity it must come with no strings attached.

The client who described her hyperfocus as paralysis tried the stand-up-and-pat-head palette cleanser, and it worked. Most of the time she chose to start doing something else, often something productive. Sometimes she chose to return to the same thing she’d been doing, but found that she usually returned for a fixed period of time—say, another 15 minutes—and then stopped without needing a second standing pat on the head.

The palette cleanser technique works because it uses your body to interrupt itself. Hyperfocus is a human behavioral version of inertial motion,2 analogous to a runaway train: it can’t be stopped just by thinking about it; it needs physical brakes. Stopping the hyperfocused motion is the goal, even if only for a minute, even if you decide to go right back to it. The purpose and the benefit of the palette cleanser technique is not to get you to be productive, it’s to give you that vital space, that precious moment, in which you can choose freely. Stopping = Freedom.

A physical spoon of sorbet is a tasty, simple, and super-effective braking method.


  1. Wine is another commonly used palette cleanser. 

  2. The law of inertial motion: “Every body continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a right line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.” — Isaac Newton. “Axioms, or Laws of Motion.” Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. 1687. (Emphasis added.) 

How to Get the Reading Done (Enough): The UBER Method

Here is a tried and true outside-the-box method for doing course reading that works for people who feel weighed down by reading assignments.

Riddle yourself this: How often do you complete enough of your assigned reading to be able to go to class feeling confident that if called on you’ll be able to look the teacher in the eye and respond directly from your knowledge of the text? Restrict your answer to one of these two:

  1. Often enough to do as well as I want to
  2. Not often enough to do as well as I want to

If your answer is “a,” don’t mess with a winning streak. No need to spend time on this post; go do your reading.

If your answer is “b,” however, then the UBER method can change your academic life.

If you’re actively choosing not to read for class, then at least you’re exercising free will. But many of us don’t read (or not much), yet wish we could magically absorb books. We want to have done the reading, but somehow can’t manage to do it. When I played the “super-power” game for the first time in my life—“If you could have one super-power, what would it be?”—my answer was, “The ability to read a 500-page book in an hour with perfect comprehension.” All these years later, my answer is still the same.

My super-power wish betrays a common preconception: that reading needs to be done from beginning to end without skipping anything. Reading every word from start to finish is ideal, at least in the respect that most literature, fiction and nonfiction, is written to be read this way. If I’m reading for pleasure, I read from beginning to end (though not everyone does this; it’s a matter of personal preference). But reading for course work involves an important utilitarian consideration: if I understand the substance of the reading, who cares if I didn’t read every word? And what difference does it make if I read the pages out of order?

The essence of the UBER method is simple and practical. Be goal-directed. Read what you need to read.

Reading every word and following every thought in a text step by step is a beautiful thing. But when we’re having trouble getting reading done, we have to be willing to sacrifice beauty. We’re going to read in an ugly but efficient way. That’s the UBER method: Ugly But Efficient Reading.1

The first thing to do when using the UBER method is—don’t read the text!—at least not yet. Walk around it for a few minutes; survey it. You’re not going to dive into the reading, you’re going to figure out what you need to get out of it, and then go fishing in the best spots. You’re not going to wade slowly but dutifully through all the pages; you’re going to look things up.

The UBER (Ugly But Efficient Reading) Method

  1. Consider the context. What do you already know? How does this reading relate to the course material? (This latter question you can ask your professor outright, if it’s not clear to you.)
  2. Gather clues. Also known as “pre-reading,” this is when you read all the easy stuff and learn as much as possible as fast as possible. The first things you should read are:
    • the book cover
    • the summary on the back cover (or the abstract of the article)
    • the table of contents
    • pictures and captions
    • charts, graphs, tables, notes
    • questions at the end of the chapter; and then…
  3. STOP. What do you know now? More importantly, given what you’ve learned from the clues you’ve gathered, what do you now want to know about this reading? Ask questions.
  4. Find out where the text is going to end up. Read the last paragraph (or two). Then read the first paragraph to see where and how the text begins, and ask more questions: What is important in this reading? What is the last paragraph saying? What don’t you understand yet? What do you need to find out more about?
  5. Finally, read whatever parts of the text you need to in order to answer your questions. In other words, read to learn what you need to know.2

The key to the UBER method is making sure you have accomplishable goals in front of you at all times. Finding answers to questions you have, especially when you have the text that the answers are in, is an accomplishable goal. For some of us, the prospect of a dense 40-page article on a subject we don’t find interesting feels daunting enough that we avoid even starting it. Now compare having to read that article straight through to having an untimed open-book exam on it. Passing an open-book exam is an accomplishable goal.

So, open your books and get out of them what you need. Ugly But Efficient Reading is much more enlightening than perfect reading that doesn’t get done at all.


P.S. Try the UBER method out on this post. Read the title and the footnotes, the lists, and the phrases in bold type. Then read the final paragraphs, then the first couple of paragraphs. See how much you can learn just from these?


  1. The reading strategies in this post are not original on my part; in fact they’re well known among reading teachers. However, the acronym “UBER” for “Ugly But Efficient Reading” is my own invention. 

  2. Now, don’t be a dope: what you need to know is not defined by what you learn until you get bored; it’s what you need to know to participate intelligently and confidently in a class discussion. 

How to Manage End-of-Term Paper Pile-Up

It is a conspiracy. Your professors are trying to kill you. They have all made their term papers due within days of each other, and then come the final exams you have to study for.

Don’t die. You can’t give them the satisfaction. You must survive. Here’s how.

First, for some of you, things aren’t looking too bad until next week. DON’T BE FOOLED. This is part of their plan: lull you into a false sense of security, and then—WHAM, five different versions of 20 pages plus works cited and annotated bibliography and some new cover page format with something called an “abstract.” Not to mention overdue lab reports and “response” papers.

You need to start now.

Step One: Assess the Damage.

How much work do you have to do between now and the end of term? Make a four-column list of every single assignment:

Assignment | Due Date | Hours of Work | Instructor

“Hours of Work” is the number of hours it will take you to complete the assignment, including all reading, prewriting, writing, revising, proofreading, and packaging with ribbons and bows. If possible, estimate based on past experience with similar assignments: how long has it taken you? In any case estimate liberally; it’s usually a safe bet to multiply your initial guess by 1.5 or 2.

All right, now sit somewhere comfortable, grab a best friend or two and perhaps your favorite stuffed animal for moral support, and count up the total number of hours of work you have in front of you. Breathe. Drink some water. It’s going to be okay.

Step Two: See the Big Picture.

Make a large calendar that includes all the days between now and the end of the final exam period.—8½x11 is way too small; best to tape many 8½x11 sheets together, and put only 2–4 days on each sheet; the more space the better; make this calendar as big as your kitchen table. Write each assignment on a Post-It or small card or something, and place the assignments on their respective due dates; don’t stack: make sure you can see every single assignment.

Step Two-and-a-Half: Reserve Time Between Rounds

If you’re going into battle, be smart about it. Be rigorous about your conditioning. Especially during this period when you have to fire on all cylinders and go into double and triple overtime (to mix as many metaphors as possible), you must get plenty of sleep, eat actual food—you know, from nature—and take non-work breaks to refresh your energy.

For every day on your calendar, generously block out hours to sleep, eat, and chill. You can probably predict from past experience that you’ll end up crashing during those hours anyway if you become over-exhausted, so better to plan for them.

Step Three: Redistribute the Weight.

Now, if your teachers have colluded effectively, you will probably have two or more assignments due on top of each other, or so close together that it looks like you’ll have to work on two or more simultaneously. Proceed with caution.

You will now begin to see before you an illusion. It will appear that all you have to do is work on both assignments X and Y  for a couple of days and you’ll get them both done. Don’t believe it! It’s a mirage, a trick! Don’t try to multitask. Don’t try to be an academic superhero. It’s a fine tactic to move all your due dates back a day or two to give yourself some cushions, but you have to make it so that you can work on one assignment at a time.

Now, solve the calendrical puzzle. Here are the rules:

  • You may move assignments forward or backward on the calendar.
  • You may not let the work periods for multiple assignments overlap.
  • You must sleep and eat during your regular sleeping and eating times. (During this step, sleeping and eating take priority over finishing assignments by their due dates.)
  • You must chill for at least three hours (one or two in emergencies) between assignments.

Move assignments away from each other. When necessary, allow yourself to push some assignments past their due dates. When you do push an assignment past its due date, note that somehow (a red dot, a skull and crossbones…).

If you’ve rearranged your assignments so you can complete them one at a time and hand them all in on or before their due dates, you can skip to Step Five.

If, however, you now have some assignments that are scheduled to be done after their due dates, you must proceed to Step Four.

Step Four: Negotiate.

Ask for extensions on those assignments you needed to push forward on the calendar. It is perfectly respectable to ask for an extension if you ask for it in advance. It might help to fold up your calendar and bring it with you to show your teachers the work schedule you’ve made for yourself. It will show that you have taken control of this difficult but very common situation, and that you are managing it responsibly. This will warm your professors’ hearts, and they will gladly do what they can to help you succeed. Sometimes a professor will respond that a particular assignment can’t be handed in late for one reason or another. If that happens, enlist that professor’s aid in rearranging your calendar so that you can get everything done without fasting or losing sleep.

Step Five: Do Good Enough Work.

Finally, do your assignments, one at a time, and work on them in a goal-oriented way. No masterpieces when you’re under time pressure. Write good, solid, coherent, workmanlike papers. Here is a tried and true essay writing method and template you can use to make the process more efficient. I used to call it the “essay mill.”

Make sure you proofread! It would suck to put in hours of work on many papers and lose points all over the place for not following through.

Reminder: Make Clean Transitions.

Every time you complete an assignment you need to do three things:

  1. Mark it as done on your calendar.
  2. Celebrate its completion.
  3. Take a substantial break before starting the next one.

Marking the assignment done will clear it from your plate, and you’ll feel lighter and more hopeful of success. Celebrating will reinforce your accomplishment, your feeling that you’re getting somewhere, and that will have the effect of refreshing your determination to see this through to the end. Taking a break will act as a palate cleanser: you’ll be able to turn your thoughts away from the last assignment and focus on the next one.

Won’t it be satisfying, at semester’s end, to know that when your professors dished out their worst, you were strong and judicious and skillful, and successfully completed all that work? What a confidence-builder! And think how light and spacious it will feel to be finished and truly free from school, with the warmth and green of summer stretching out before you.

Go Fish in
Streams of Consciousness:

absenceacceptanceaccomplishmentADHDaimsanalysisannotationanxietyAPAappearanceappleappreciationargumentartistaskingattachmentattentionawarenessBatmanbeingblank mindblissboatboring!brainstormingbraverycandlescenter of gravitychoicechoosing collegecognitioncommunicationcompassionconclusionconfidenceconsciousnessconversationcreative writingcreativitydawdlingdiagnosisdoorsdramadreamdrinkingecologyemotionenergyessaysessentialevidenceexamexcitementexecutive functionexerciseexperienceexpositionfailurefearfeelingfightfigurationflowfootballfrederick douglassfreewritinggamegedankenexperimentgesturegetting startedgoalgrammarhappinesshealinghearthonorhopehumanideasimaginationimagination_exerciseimplexinnovationinspirationinstinctinterestjubileekinestheticknifeknowledgelogicloudlovemagicmanagemasterymeaningmechanicsmedicationmeditationmetacognitionmilitarymindmistakesMLAmothermotivationmountainnontraditional collegenote-takingnotesorganizeout-of-the-boxparticipationpartspassionpatiencepeak-experiencepedagogyperseverancepersistencephysicalizeplanplayingplaywrightingplotpoetrypositive pointingpre-writingpreferenceprepositionpresenceprioritiesprocessprocrastinationprofessorsproofreadingputteringquestionsreadingrealityreflectionrelationshiprelaxationrepresentationreservesresourcesresponseresponsibilityrevisingsanctuaryself-actualizationself-assessmentself-relianceseptembershort storysocratic methodsoulspacestorystrengthsstressstudyingsuccesssummariessynthesistalkingtasksteachingtechniquetest anxietytest-takingThanksgivingthemethesisthinkingtimetolerancetomorrowtreetrusttruthunderstandingveteransvisualizationvoicewaldorfwelcomewholewillwillpowerwomenwordsworkingwriter's blockwritingyearningyesterday

Categories